Phil Primeau

American Breakfast

Throughout all of his years as a familiar face about Main Street, Lou Amos had never shown great affection for Sandra's. Indeed, more than the prospect of good food and steady conversation, it was the bitter snapping of the wind and the slow, persistent rainfall which drove him into that particular establishment as the morning waned. Red's Roost, his typical and much favored haunt, was perhaps ten minutes walk deeper into the Bay District—a long hike on such an inclement day. The chilly drizzle would not allow Lou to forget his recent tangle with pneumonia.

"Don't get yourself sick again going all the way down Main just so you can sneak a smoke with breakfast. Go to Sandra's, you haven't seen Carl in a while, anyway," his wife had nagged on the way home from mass.

"I heard you the first dozen times, bunny. Quit worrying. I'd be an idiot to spend an extra second out in this shit." He sealed the small promise with a dry kiss on the cheek.

As he opened the door and entered Sandra's, he recalled suddenly the vague taste of blush which had lingered on his lips immediately after the peck. Like an old woman, like a damn old woman. He struggled to cast the thought from his mind for fear of where it would lead. If Claire was an old woman, what did that make him?

Sandra's was packed. Not that Lou minded eating shoulder-to-shoulder at the counter. Even at Red's space was a rare luxury, but at least there it was a sort of familiar claustrophobia. Sandra's was cramped and sterile, like a busy hospital or the Catholic church he made sure to attend once a week.

There were noisy out-of-towners from Wickwane and Cranford. There were new money types from the manicured developments which had over the last ten years come to blemish the proud New England woods that surround Easterville. There were kids from the high school who wore their fitted caps indoors and seemed to Lou either stoned or criminally sleep deprived. Probably both, he decided, sliding his wiry frame onto a stool. He slouched on the longish counter.

Time had taken it easy on Lou. Treading uncomfortably close to fifty, he had managed to maintain roughly the same dimensions for the last thirty years. He would boast of his weight to Claire. He would prod his gut vigorously and roar: "Look—look, bunny! Not ten pounds I didn't have at twenty, huh?"

Her response was patent. "Lou, you make up for it in wrinkles."

Expected as it was, he would always scoff at her half-serious, half-playful retort. "Give me a goddamn break."

But, as wives tend to be, Claire was right. Lou's cheeks were worked with creases. Across his forehead deep lines had begun forming. Still, he was a decent specimen of a man. His hair was thick. It fell in tawny knots over his ears as it had when he was a boy. Stern and dim, his eyes cast a gaze which could not be received lightly. "Don't all the girls at school love your strong eyes?" his mom used to ask. "My little man."

Lou smoothed a bunch in his damp khakis. He shrugged off his zipper-up fleece. It was threading at the left elbow. He knocked amicably on the counter and grinned at the waitress as she made her way over. "Lookin' nice," he said with an exaggerated nod of approval.

Renny rolled her eyes, chewing loudly on a fresh stick of gum. "What'll it be, Lou? Start with some joe?" The coffee was hot and bitter. He tidily emptied three things of cream and a heavy spoonful of sugar into the cup.

"You been 'round all morning, Ren?"

"Just got here, honey."

"Carl in back?"

"Yep. Spatula in one hand, bottle in the other." She turned to a new page in her order pad.

Renny was younger than Lou. Her face was clean and pretty, but it was her breasts that cried for more thorough review. "Tits that can kill," Carl would proclaim, his chubby hands happily grasping a pair of phantom breasts.

"Tell him to come over here when he gets a chance."

"Whatta you havin'? The special is a Mexican omelet with . . ."

"Nothing south of the border today, Ren. My stomach, y'know. I've been sick. Just eggs over medium with bacon. Side of home fries, side of toast."


"You got it. And some jam. Some jam and a glass of milk."

"We only got whole, Lou."

"OJ then."

Renny wobbled away. Her too-high platform shoes clicked against the linoleum floor. Lou watched as she pushed through the swinging doors and disappeared into the kitchen. He turned to his neighbor and, motioning to the messy newspaper, asked if he could borrow the front page.

"Well," the man said with a strange amount of conviction, "you can take sports if ya'd like. I'm about to get right into the front myself."

Lou hesitated, taken somewhat aback by the refusal. He had a hazy understanding of the brusque stranger. He had seen him unloading eighteen wheelers at the marina and fishing off Sandy Point on Sundays. He was not from Easterville. Cranford, Lou decided with a mental grimace. He reached for the sports section. "Thanks."

Sports had never overly fascinated Lou, though he had played Little League for seven or eight years and had been on the JV team for a time in high school. His regrettable habit of throwing with a loopy sidearm put the cap on any aspirations for taking to the diamond in college. He quit the JV squad halfway through junior season. "You know, you gotta smart head but piss poor spirit, Amos," the assistant coach had yelled. "And brains're only part of the trick. Ya hear me, son? You'd do best to stick it out at least until the playoffs."

He had not. As if doing penance for his youthful transgression, he proceeded to tackle the previous day's scores with special attentiveness. "Them Pats," he murmured. Like so many comments uttered over coffee and eggs at the counter of a breakfast nook, it was largely the vocalization of a more substantive inner monologue. It was also dangling meat. It was a tiny lure hung in the open space between one man and another in hopes of sparking meager dialogue.

The guy gave Lou a sideways glance. He pushed back a string of graying hair. "Not a fan."

"Oh!" He paused. "Oh yeah?" Lou said, fumbling lamely to turn the exclamation into a query. "Oh?" he repeated with a weak smile.

"I'm a Steeler's man."

"Ah, from Philly?"

The man bunched his lips. "Pittsburgh." Lou cracked a phony grin. The third grade slip embarrassed him.

The stranger tossed back his head and gave a tough chuckle, casually grabbing Lou's shoulder in the process. "Ya look like you just ran over your dog, chief! Damn, don't sweat it. Roman, Roman Poulson."

Lou introduced himself and they shook hands.

Again Roman took hold of his shoulder. "But call me Rome. It's Rome or ya might as well be like my son's friends and call me Mr. Poulson."

"Hope I'm not interruptin' something, guys." It was Renny, a couple of plates in hand. She dropped them noisily onto the counter and tossed down two sets of silverware wrapped in paper napkins.

"You're a doll," thanked Rome. He fiddled his fork and knife from their wrap and cut into his thin slab of steak. Grease pooled under the meat. Again he poked at it with the blade.

"Skimpy bastard," he said.

Lou shoveled home fries into his mouth. "I avoid this place more or less. Try Sandra's sometime."

"Sure. That's what I love about you guys down here, all these great holes in the wall. We got nothing in Wickwane besides Mickey's Diner." He paused to swallow. "And even that's been in the dumps since Mickey kicked it."

"Oh yeah, Wickwane?"

"Right on the edge with Easterville. Still work here with Three Guys Moving, though." Lou used the back of his fork to rub a piece of toast in the tide of yellow sap that streamed from his eggs. ( "Yolk," his mother had explained to him four decades earlier, "is the candy center of the egg. You like candy, don't you, Louie?")

"Three Guys? I've seen you down by the water, I think."

"It's a good enough job. We got the union last year, too."

Before Lou could reply, Carl emerged from kitchen. He had a wild, simian look of excitement. "Driver, guy! Buddy!" He came around the counter and locked Lou in an tight embrace.

"For chrissakes," Lou gasped, "you're killin' me, Carl."

"You got a few lives left to spare, right?"

"Yeah, and you're shittin' yourself if you think I'm gonna waste them in this hellhole."

Carl rubbed his crotch and looked at Roman. "This guy's bustin' my balls as usual."

Lou asked him sweetly, "What balls?"

Carl afforded Lou and Roman quick laughs, then swung an arm around Lou's neck. He let his ample girth rest upon his old friend. He smelt of liquor and cigarettes, red meat and sweat. He had short arms and shorter legs. "Only this guy! Only Driver gets to say that kinda stuff. Saved my ass once or twice back in the day."

"Iraq," Lou told Rome as an aside. He shoved Carl away and delivered a sad punch to his arm. He took a whole piece of bacon into his mouth. Many things went through his mind as he chewed. Carl started talking about Renny's tits.

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